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Thorns FC: Missed Opportunity

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The Thorns giveth, and Chicago taketh away, a point

Image by NWSL/ESPN. Licensed under Fair Use.

Settling for a home draw is never much fun. Settling for a home draw with only three matches left in the season while chasing a Seattle Reign that was only five points clear at the beginning of the match Saturday evening?

That wasn’t just not-fun, it was #@$!$#!! frustrating.

What was more frustrating is that rather than being outplayed by the Chicago Red Stars, the Thorns helped put themselves in the basket by giving up the first goal on a painful mistake by one-half of the Wall Once Known As The Great Wall of Emily.

Image by NWSL/ESPN. Licensed under Fair Use.

Throw in another created by pure good work by Chicago’s Vanessa DiBernardo and Samantha Kerr, and it took a hell of a hard-fought battle over the final 30-odd minutes to pull the Thorns back into the match and snatch the point.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad they did, and one point is better than none.

But with a chance to gain ground on the Reign last Saturday’s draw feels very much like a missed opportunity and, worse, I don’t see any “lessons learned” from this match other than the obvious.

Once again, Portland put themselves in a position to have to scramble to salvage something because the attack sputtered and the defense faltered early in the match.

So, yeah, this wasn’t some sort of black swan; the Thorns have been doing this to themselves all season.

Ugh. I hate writing that.

The Thorns now have to turn around quickly and beat Sky Blue this coming Wednesday. On Matchday 14, Sky Blue did just what Chicago did last weekend – came in here and snatched a point that owed a lot to the Thorns beating themselves.

That can’t happen again. Not now. Not here.

Player Ratings and Comments:

Crnogorcevic (56’ - +2/-2 : +1/-0 : +3/-2) It wasn’t that Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic wasn’t good last Saturday, it was that she wasn’t enough.

Crnogorcevic wasn’t getting service, wasn’t putting pressure on goal, wasn’t scoring. That wasn’t her fault, but after going down by two the Thorns needed something else, and that something was Caitlin Foord. Here’s Crnogorcevic’s shots and passes over 56 minutes:

Image by NWSL in public domain.

And here’s Foord’s over 34 minutes.

Image by NWSL in public domain.

Coach Parson’s 56th minute substitutions raised the level of the Thorns’ attack significantly not because Crnogorcevic was so ineffective, but because Foord was so much more effective.

Foord (34’ - +2/-0) See above. Brilliant dummy on the Sinclair goal, too; just a terrific shift.

One thing I’d like to see more from Foord is shooting. Before the start of the season I questioned whether Foord was a scorer (rather than a provider, as her club form in Europe suggested) and owner Merritt Paulson told me I was wrong.

If that’s the case then I’d like to see her start to take a crack at goal more often. C’mon, Foord, have a go. You’ll never convert any of the shots you don’t take.

Raso (78’ - +8/-1 : +5/-3 : +13/-4) Hayley Raso did all her usual good work; powerful runs, aggressive forechecking, and intelligent passing. She had a tough time finding time and space to shoot, however; a perfect example was in the 35th minute, when Christine Sinclair’s pass sent her through, but she lacked Thorns support, drew Kathleen Naughton and Julie Ertz, and the pair slowed Raso, harassed her, and finally dispossessed her. It was that kind of night for Raso; lots of good work, but thanks to Chicago’s defense not a lot to show for it.

I want to praise Raso in particular for her terrific hard work down around Chicago’s goal starting right after the Tobin Heath goal. In the 61st minute she beat Naughton to the byline and sent in a cross that fell perfectly to Heath’s feet, but Heath slipped and the ball was cleared away. Three minutes later Raso played a pretty little 1-2 with Ellie Carpenter that sent Carpenter through to make a sweet square pass to Foord, but, again, Chicago’s defense closed in and cleared the ball out for a Portland throw.

Then, between the 65th and 67th minutes, Raso and Carpenter set up an Aussie Kickabout Shop down in the southwest corner of the pitch, passing, moving, repeatedly probing, and testing the Chicago backline looking for an opening.

The opening didn’t come then, but I have my suspicions that it might have led to a goal coming from a Carpenter cross out of that same corner only two minutes later.

Heath (+8/-6 : +7/-1 : +15/-7) Obviously Heath gets big props for her high-angle, long-range headed goal – the artillery fire-direction chief in me wanted to buy her the traditional malty beverage for getting “first-round-effects-on-target” from such an unusual effort.

But what really impressed me was Heath’s realization that Chicago was perfectly willing to let her dribble her way into trouble and then pick her pocket – five of her seven minuses are for getting tackled for loss in the first half. In the second half she stopped doing that and started doing what made her so effective in Orlando; passing out of trouble, and moving to space without the ball to take the return pass. That’s a smart player.

Heath is a hell of a smart player, but she also seems to be a very passionate competitor who is 1) superbly confident in her ball skills, and 2) desperately eager to use them to make things happen.

Nikita Taparia

Sometimes I think she lets that get in the way of helping her team. I have read comments to the effect that her dribbling is a sign that she’s bored with playing regular old soccer and wants to break ankles to amuse herself.

I don’t think that’s it. I think, like any maestra, she believes that her talents are the lever she can use to move the Earth.

What she needs is to believe in her teammates’ skills, too, and use them. When she does – as she did in the second half last Saturday – she and they can move the Earth.

Horan (+6/-2 : +9/-2 : +15/-4) I don’t know how she does it.

I can’t believe that Rory Dames didn’t tell his team “Don’t forget – mark Lindsey Horan on set pieces!”. I can’t think that as they lined up for the free kick in the 19th minute Ertz didn’t shout “You! Mark Horan!”.

And yet there Horan was, all alone, heading the shot on frame.

Mind you, the shot was a soft looping header that Alyssa Naeher gathered in without trouble. But, still – how the hell does she do that?

Other than not getting the set piece goal, Horan did more than enough to make her my pick for Woman of the Match. Relentless on both sides of the ball, and effective passing, moving to space, and tackling. Maybe not quite a Great Horan night, but a Damn-Near-Great Horan night.

Sinclair (+3/-1 : +6/-0 : +9/-1) After struggling a bit in the first half Captain Sinclair came into her own in the second. Gorgeous goal, some precise passing, and as always, continuing to do the grunt work in midfield. Overall a good match, if in a quiet, not-flashy, Canadian sort of way.

Boureille (56’ - +5/-3 : +1/-0 : +6/-3) As with Crnogorcevic, Celeste Boureille wasn’t a problem. But because of her largely defensive skillset she couldn’t be part of the solution, not with the Thorns down by two. The passing/shooting matrices tell the story. Here’s Boureille:

Image by NWSL in public domain.

And here’s Andressinha:

Image by NWSL in public domain

Boureille simply doesn’t have the same skills that, given enough time and space, Andressinha does and used against Chicago with effect. Again; it’s not that Boureille did poorly. It was that Coach Parsons saw that he needed to change matchups, did, and it worked; as you can see, Andressinha worked further up the pitch, completed more passes towards the Red Stars goal, and that’s what the Thorns needed.

Andressinha (34’ - +6/-0) See above.

Purce (12’ - +6/-0) Midge Purce was on the pitch less than a quarter hour, but in that time injected a massive dose of energy into the Thorns’ forechecking defending. Sometimes Purce seems to lack focus, but not last Saturday; she stuck like a knife and cut like a razor. Damn fine shift.

Klingenberg (+6/-5 : +8/-3 : +14/-8) On an evening when the Thorns’ defense didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, Meghan Klingenberg did arguably the best work of the back four. Which is not to say that she didn’t have her moments, mostly involving DiBernardo. DiBernardo stripping her within 15 yards of the Thorns goal in the 52nd minute was appalling enough, but Kling’s “clearance” directly out to the Red Stars midfielder in the 24th minute was perhaps even more culpable, in that Kling didn’t manage to block the 24th minute shot as she did with the later one.

This was a classic Good Kling/Bad Kling match; intelligent passing and solid defending mixed with goofy positional errors and iffy decisionmaking. If she gets credit for helping out on the Heath goal – and she should – she also has to take the blame for the defensive errors that made that goal part of a comeback and not a matchwinner.

Menges (+4/-2 : +2/-1 : +6/-3) Emily Menges had the same problems I’ve discussed in the Klingenberg comment; some good work, some goofs she’ll wish she could take back. As goes the Great Wall so, often, goes the Portland defense. The Wall has looked very shaky at times this season, and so has the team. Menges needs to return to her brutally efficient 2017 form.

Sonnett (+4/-4 : +4/-2 : +8/-6) Oh, my, my, Emily Sonnett (shaking his head ruefully).

Not content with giving up a goal to Kerr on a horrendous brain-fart you came damn close to putting your team in an even worse hole in the 67th minute.

Got nothing but ball?

Image by ESPN/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

I think not.

Image by ESPN/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

The referee’s decision to issue only the yellow card caution here is correct; Sonnet’s toe is down and she appears to be making an attempt to play the ball.

But that’s a desperately risky tackle to be making on a meaningless possession, deep in Chicago territory, with the Thorns still down by a goal. Another referee could easily have shown Sonnett red for that, and then the Thorns would have been down a goal AND a player.

I want to give her credit for the good work she did Saturday, and she did some good work. But those two regrettable incidents stand out so sharply that it’s difficult to do that. She’s an international player. She can be, and has been, much better than she was last weekend.

She and her team cannot afford for her to be doing things like this.

Carpenter (+3/-3 : +5/-2 : +8/5) Having put on a defensive show against Orlando’s Marta, Ellie Carpenter was a force going forward against Chicago. Still did decently in the back (though Rosie White shouldn’t have gotten as much space from Carpenter as she did in second half injury time – Carpenter was fortunate White headed wide) and was full of her usual energy and pace.

If I had a wish it’d be see Carpenter and Raso connect more productively. They play well off each other but they still seem to need something more, some little missing piece, to make that connection turn into goals. I’d love to see them produce the sort of results that the Klingenberg-Heath Connection did in 2016.

Franch (+2/-2 : +2/-0 : +4/-2) I think AD Franch got caught moving to her left on the first Kerr goal. On the tape she hops to a stop just as Kerr shoots, and you can see her try to shift her weight back to her right side and fail as the ball goes past; the tell is that she doesn’t even try to dive to her right even though the ball was probably saveable with a strong dive. That was a great goal – I don’t want to make it sound like it was all on Franch – but I think if you asked her she’d like that one back and get set a fraction of a second earlier.

Franch also had a very odd fumble in the 24th minute.

Image by ESPN/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

I wish I could figure out what happened here; Franch got to the ball before Kerr, but she didn’t take it cleanly - she acted like she thought it was a backpass and let it bounce off her arms. That was bizarre, and I still can’t figure out what happened, or why.

Franch wasn’t at fault on the second concession, and was critical in hanging onto the point with a massive diving save in the 91st minute, pushing a powerful DiBernardo shot wide onto the post. So a damn good match for Franch overall, even with the strange little do-over things.

Coach Parsons – I’ve discussed the 56th minute substitutions enough; they were critical in saving the point, so huge credit to Parsons for that.

That said, the backline mistakes are troublesome, and they, too, are a coaching issue and one that hasn’t been satisfactorily addressed.

Defense is only going to become more critical in the playoffs, where a knockout may come down to penalties. The Thorns have a terrific shot-stopper in Franch, and holding a playoff opponent scoreless for 120 minutes might be a key to moving on to, or winning, the championship. The Thorns have only four clean sheets this season, and one is against punchless Washington. Even the Spirit have scored on the Thorns, as have hapless Sky Blue in both their encounters, and if I was the coach I’d be worried about that.

But sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Right now Parsons’ and the Thorns need to manage the short rest and the visitors from Jersey. Sky Blue came within moments of their first win this past weekend and are sure to be hungry to hang one on the defending champs. The Jersey Blues have been playing like they’re not yet ready to lay down and die yet.

Let’s take care of business, Thorns, and put them out of their misery.